How to resist the powerful forces trying to make us fear our fellow Americans

By Bob Boisture, Fetzer Institute President & CEO

USA Today published an abridged version of this essay in its June 16, 2021 issue.

How did we ever persuade ourselves that we can love America without loving Americans?

Fractured by fear. Living from fear and living from love are very different things. Fear closes our hearts. Love opens them. Fear despairs. Love hopes. Fear shouts. Love listens. Fear has to be right. Love is willing to be wrong. Fear thinks the other side must lose for our side to win. Love knows we can only win together.

Our country is being fractured by fear. We fear rapid and massive change we cannot control. We fear economic instability. We fear leaders, laws, and systems that deny our full humanity. We fear a culture that demeans us and the values we hold dear. We fear the damage we are doing to the natural world. And, increasingly, we fear each other.

To make matters worse, powerful interests amplify and exploit our fear for their own profit and power. News sources, search engines, and social media selectively feed us information that hardens our opinions and makes them more extreme, confident that if they stoke our fear, we will come back for more. Politicians and other factional leaders inflame our tribal fears and prejudice, knowing that they can use these powerful emotions to short-circuit our reason and gain our uncritical support.

Further, with each mean-spirited election cycle, each bitter confirmation battle, each failure to find common ground on a major issue, more and more of us are gripped by another fear—the fear that our democracy is failing.

Rejecting fear, embracing love. There is the only one impulse of the human heart powerful enough to overcome this fear that is destroying us. That impulse is love.

Love is a strong word. For many it will sound fundamentally out of place in a discussion of politics and democracy. Civic virtue, perhaps, but surely not love.

And that is precisely the point! How did we ever persuade ourselves that we can love America without loving Americans? As if we could love America in the abstract while despising large groups of our fellow citizens. It simply can’t be done. We cannot love America without affirming the dignity and worth of every American, and without making a wholehearted commitment to each other to work for the flourishing of all. 

These commitments—to love, to the sacred dignity of every person, and to the flourishing of all—change everything. “Us versus them” becomes “we are all in this together.” Every child becomes our child. We are compelled by love to fight every threat to their flourishing—whether from poverty, racism, breakdown of families and communities, environmental degradation, or cultural values that debase their sense of who they are and who they can be.

We rightly treasure freedom, but we can become the people and the nation we are meant to be only if we embrace our freedom as the freedom to love—as the freedom to build up and not to tear down.

The good news is that if enough of us make these essential democratic commitments, we really can arrest and reverse the accelerating downward spiral of our common life. We can build a bridging force in American culture and politics animated by love and powerful enough to overcome the fear that is pulling us apart, powerful enough to build an America in which everyone wins.

We have no time to waste! None of us knows how many more polarizing election cycles our democracy has in it.

A bridging vision. What we envision is not a new political party, but a bridging force of tens of millions of Americans animated by love and united at a level deeper than politics by a shared commitment to the dignity of every person and to building a society in which all can flourish. This movement will embody and champion the essential democratic values: values like good faith, solidarity, truth, justice, intellectual humility, compromise, and, most of all, love.

These commitments will transform not only our politics but our culture as a whole. They will ennoble our sense of ourselves, of our fellow citizens, and of the country we can build together. They will infuse and elevate our relations with family, neighbors, community, coworkers, and, ultimately, with all our fellow Americans. They will give us reason to be humbly but justly proud of being Americans.

When enough of us put our shoulder to this wheel, we will also fundamentally transform the dynamics of American politics. When we start showing up in large numbers to vote at party caucuses and primaries, we will inspire a new generation of candidates who share our bridging values, and many will win. When this bridging dynamic takes hold in our political parties, they will stop moving further to the extremes and, instead, take up the hard work of finding practical, common ground strategies to address our big challenges. Our principled policy disagreements will then drive a virtuous competition to see what mix of liberal and conservative policies most effectively supports human flourishing and the flourishing of the natural world.

Building a movement. In-depth studies of Americans’ values and political views make clear that a great many of us are primed to embrace this bridging vision.

These studies show that the intense polarizing energy that is driving our culture of fear is coming largely from a small percentage of intensely ideological leaders and activists at each end of the political spectrum.

These studies also show that the overwhelming majority of Americans—upwards of 80 percent by some measures—are significantly less ideological and want to find common ground.

Until now, this great majority has had no hopeful vision, strategy, and leadership around which to rally. We can change that! We must begin to lift up a powerful bridging vision, put forward a practical and compelling strategy, and mobilize the leaders and resources that will lead and empower an intensive national mobilization effort.

Using a tipping point strategy, we must appeal first to the “innovators” and “early adopters” who already resonate strongly with the bridging vision, and then we will work with them to draw in the next circle of “bridgers,” and the next, and the next.

Our bridging vision will exert a powerful pull on both hearts and minds. For open hearts it will offer the chance to make a difference, the inspiring comradeship of other people of good will, and hope for the future. For open minds it will offer the compelling logic of enlightened self-interest: if our democracy flourishes, we will all flourish with it; if the ship sinks, all our dreams will go down as well.

As we contemplate this massive mobilization effort, we can take great encouragement from the important bridging work already being done in communities across the country, and among leaders in faith communities, civil society, philanthropy, higher education, and business.

America is, and forever will be, a work in progress. For nearly 250 years, we have been an ever growing, ever more diverse nation with a broadening and deepening commitment to building a pluralistic society grounded in freedom, justice, and opportunity for all.

We have realized these ideals in profound ways that have ennobled the human spirit, elevated the human condition, and made America an inspiration to the world.

We have fallen short of these ideals in profound ways that have inflicted immeasurable cruelty, suffering, and injustice.

Owning both this light and this darkness as our shared story, we must now confront and redress our failures, celebrate and build on our successes, and, in love, take up the great bridging work of bringing forth a new birth of American democracy.